Archive for October, 2009


Posted in Academics, Culture, Expat life, Korea, Personal, PIFF, Technology on October 21, 2009 by Elephant Talk

If a blog has its own identity then this one is in an existential crisis. I say this because 1) it’s an exercise in free will, and 2) I’m wondering what the point is. To put it another way, I’m considering committing blog suicide. Ending it, putting it out of its misery, sending it off to the big sleep.

I’ve been in Korea for two years and eight months. I’ve had this blog for all but four months of that time. I’ve used it primarily as an opportunity to share my impressions of living in this culture. I have a particular audience in mind when I write, that being my family. Actually, when I write, I usually have my mom in mind, because I know she reads all the time and I know she enjoys it. But there are two reasons why I think it’s time to end it…
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Winners of the 2009 PIFF festival

Posted in Film & TV, Korea, PIFF on October 17, 2009 by Elephant Talk

Here are the winners. (The only one I saw was Paju.)

PIFF report: Paju

Posted in Culture, Expat life, Film & TV, Images, Korea, Personal, PIFF on October 16, 2009 by Elephant Talk

My final screening at the 2009 PIFF festival was a Korean melodrama called Paju. This was also the last PIFF screening at the Haeundae Megabox theater, so the entire staff of volunteers came out to bow to the packed house of patrons. It was all very cute.

PajuPaju was not cute; it was pretty damned intense. This was yet another taboo romance, with director Park Chan-ok successfully putting her audience through utter hell. As is typical with modern Korean melodramas, a tragic event has occurred, leading to a misunderstanding, and thereby throwing everyone into self-inflicted conundrums of Shakespearean proportions. The story is intended to induce suffering, from the three tragic central characters to the backdrop of forced relocation of homes to a rural community with seemingly no future.

I’ve seen enough Korean movies now. Once I got the Big Answer halfway through the film, I knew what was coming. I won’t give anything away, but it has to do with that very Korean form of sacrifice and heroism. And, as with other Korean melodramas, there is always, always the beautiful girl who makes it all worth it. Actress Seo Woo is indeed almost impossibly adorable, but her character is no saint. She’s selfish and detached, with a bit of a mean streak. Granted, her situation has played a role in making her that way, and she does have a sweet side to her. But it pains me to see what these men go through for the doe-eyed “innocent.”

Still, this is a complicated character and a complicated set of circumstances. Even if the misunderstanding could be worked out, we’re still left with a forbidden love in a hopeless town. Like Romeo & Juliet, even if the message arrives, even if they could come together somehow, reality is still against them.

If I sound like I didn’t like this movie, that’s not it at all. In fact, I’ve really come to like these heartbreaking Korean yarns. Paju is well made, with a very effective time-shifting montage that provides mysteries and then reveals them in a manner that works. This is an edgy art film with big budget production values and an excellent ensemble cast.

And with that, I think my PIFF blogging is done. I lost count of how many movies I saw — 11 or 12 I think. The atmosphere, the films, the weather, the parties, the conversations… all added up to another wonderful week. But I’m tired. I haven’t slept much, I drank too much, and my apartment is a disaster. I feel the need for a weekend of social inactivity, to calm down and get back to normal life.

PIFF: Dust to Dust

Posted in Culture, Film & TV, Images, Korea, Personal, PIFF, Sound, Travel on October 15, 2009 by Elephant Talk

In travel, as Spalding Grey used to say, you’re always holding out for that “perfect moment.” With this year’s PIFF festival, I’ve been waiting for my “perfect film” to come along. It almost happened yesterday. For me to really love a film it has to be what I feel is exceptionally well-made and also hit me personally. In short, I want to be impressed and moved at the same time. Dust, a movie out of Luxembourg, accomplished about 95% of each.

Dust is what good cinema is all about. The great thing about movies as a storytelling device is the way they reveal a story through images and sounds. Film is not really about dialog; it’s about presentation. Books can’t do this, and neither can theater. Director Max Jacoby utilizes the full spectrum of what is available in the form to his advantage. Little is said in this movie because the camera and soundtrack take up that narrative role more than any dialog could. Jacoby, through cinematographer Fredrik Bächar, is an expert in blocking and framing. Every shot seems intended to give you a clue about what these three characters are thinking and feeling. It could be choice in focus, a slow dolly into one character’s face, someone intentionally cropped out of the frame, or someone moving in or out of the frame. The sound design also plays a strong role, with liberal use of offscreen sounds. We hear a door open and we wonder; we hear the crackling of glass under footsteps and realize something happened here; we hear the arrival of a car and we feel what that means.

In essence, Dust is a post-apocalyptic love triangle. But the setting is not simply a device. The environment and situation almost acts as a fourth character. It’s something the other three must contend with. It has a say in their decision-making and it forms the particularites of the relationships that have developed and will develop. Jacoby presents the landscape as monumental in size and scope, both containing and reflecting their own dilemma. This space and setting, combined with the sparse dialog, also gives the audience plenty of headspace to wonder how all of this is going to work out. I found myself a lot of times thinking “well shit, they can’t…” or “oh right, so how…?” The slow pace kept me in suspense and kept me wondering. And when that happens, when you realize how involved you are, that’s when you know you’re watching a great movie.

Which brings me to the remaining 5% of this movie that I didn’t like, that being the ending. Again, it’s revealed by the camera, and it was… not hugely disappointing, and not unexpected. But it wasn’t enough. We needed a third act and we didn’t get it. The director had done such a fine job of telling this story and creating an atmosphere of tension, and three minutes before it ends I’m thinking, oh crap, now they have to deal with x. But Jacoby let me off the hook. He had me in suspense and I was gearing up for an interesting final 20 minutes or so, but then he let me go. In short, we needed a conflict and we didn’t get one. I warn you that the next sentence is a bit of a spoiler: Yes, the penguin kept the ring, but the spell was broken without the penguin having to face the consequences of that, so it didn’t really matter anyway.

Still, good lord what a beautiful work of art this movie is. Unfortunately, the movie I saw afterward, The Dust of Time, wasn’t. It was horrible. Seriously, my god, I hated this movie. That wooshing sound you hear is the sound of this movie going right over my head. I had no clue who these people were and what was going on. Well, I did eventually, but by the time I caught up to what the director was trying to do, I didn’t care. Willem Defoe is laying it on so thick that it’s almost campy. This movie has so much melodrama — heavy moments, crying, slow motion — that was empty because I didn’t give a damn. It’s so strange to be watching actors on screen pouring it all out and I’m just empty. And I had to endure this for over two hours. I kept thinking “it has to end sometime it has to end sometime it has to end…” but it just kept going and going and going. After a while I’m just staring at a point in the center of the screen like a laser, not looking at anything, just waiting for the damned thing to end. When that didn’t work I tried to open up some latent telekenetic ability so I could peel the corners of the screen in order to make a paper airplane out of it. Anything just to end the damned thing.

Every movie experience is like a relationship between the maker and the audience member. And in this relationship, maybe it’s not about you, it’s about me. Maybe I just missed what all this passion was about. I’d like to give some benefit of doubt and think that. But I could see other people squirming. And when it finally faded to black and those first text images started to roll onto the screen, people practically lept out of their seats heading for the exits. Usually PIFF-goers will wait for the credits to end, clap, and then leave. But not here.

Luckily this isn’t my final film. I’m seeing my last one tonight, the one I was hoping to see — Paju.

PIFF Day 5: Zero

Posted in Culture, Film & TV, Korea, Personal, PIFF on October 13, 2009 by Elephant Talk

As the PIFF festival winds its way into the final lap, I’m thinking about the things I missed. There were seminars I had every intention of attending but simply could not find the time. But mostly I’m thinking about the films I wanted to see but couldn’t, partly through scheduling but mostly through sell-outs. Sorum only had one screening. But I believe this is because it was a last minute addition to commemorate the death of actress Jang Jin Young. Then there’s surrealist Taiwanese film Face (sold out every time), Air Doll from Japan (one scheduling conflict, one sell-out), and I Come With The Rain starring Josh Hartnett (no surprise, also sold out every time). Then there are Korean films In My End Is My Beginning and Paju (both always sold out). The one I really want to see is Paju. It has one more showing on Thursday, so I’m holding out hope that I can see it. If not, Air Doll is there as well. Fingers are crossed.

Last night I saw one movie, another Polish joint called Zero (dir. Pawell Borowski). It’s up for the festival’s Flash Forward award. The director was supposed to speak before the movie, but got caught up in traffic (and the lift — jeesus, the PIFF organizers have to do something about the crazy busy, slow-ass elevator problems). He arrived, out of breath, and simply said something to the effect of “this movie is not for everyone, but I hope you like it.”

Whereas many arty films are constructed nonlinearally. This one is the exact opposite. It is completely linear, in that the whole thing happens in a forward progression of character interaction. A character does something, meets with another character and that new character then moves on to the next stage of the story. On an on we go, twisting through 24 different characters (according to the trailer above). In a sense, that means there are 24 stories, but there are really about a half dozen core events going on. While the progression may be linear, the story does circle back on itself, so we’re able to revisit the central characters in new situations with new aspects layered onto their stories.

Yes, this is a blatant construct, and you could even call it a gimmick. But it works very well, almost too well. Ten or 15 minutes into the film, we’re well aware that we’re being subjected to this construct, and for the rest of the film you’re wondering what the director’s next move is going to be. It’s a little distracting, and at 2 hours, it gets somewhat tiring after a while. The best scenes are those when you don’t think about the trick. These are the moments when the director slowed things down and we got to witness the actors and their characters breathe a little. The acting is outstanding throughout. It’s a credit to their talent and the director’s that the movie is able to bring to life so many genuine, human characters. When we get a new interaction, we don’t feel like we’re getting introduced to another new story (that would be too tiring) but instead we feel like we’ve come across someone in the midst of a story in progress. I was impressed by how I never felt abandoned or lost. There are so many characters, but I could remember each one because each was so distinct and so well-defined.

This is not a perfect movie. The stories themselves are not nearly as inventive as the sequencing device. And again, even the device gets distracting after a while, mostly because the movie is too long to sustain it. But it’s a fun ride, and it ends right where it should, and in doing so offers a subtle, self-reflexive twist on everything you’ve just seen. Do I feel manipulated? Sure, but it’s cinema, that’s what it’s for.

PIFF: Day 3&4

Posted in Culture, Film & TV, Korea, Personal, PIFF on October 12, 2009 by Elephant Talk

I’m finding it difficult to get the time to write. My first priority is to watch as many films as possible. The second is to meet up with people. I’m accomplishing these with some success. But my other objectives — sleeping and blogging — sometimes get left behind. Oh yeah, and there’s that job thing too.

Last night (Sunday) was another night of meeting and drinking. I caught up with my friend at the soju/seafood tents at around 10:30. I met a American-born Korean actor named John, an actress (again, the name escapes me dammit), and a producer of one of Korea’s most popular movies, Taegukgi. All of them were very cool and, thankfully, spoke good English. In my small petri dish of industry people I’ve met they’ve all proved to be very un-diva like. They’ve been well-traveled, friendly, good humored people. We drank several rounds of soju and ate things that moved. Then it was time for me to hit the sack.

I took in four films over the past two days: Sleeping Songs, An Aimless Bullet, The Forest, and The Fair Love. Reviews follow…
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PIFF Day 2 – 4 Films and a Party

Posted in Culture, Film & TV, Korea, Personal, PIFF on October 10, 2009 by Elephant Talk

I had a full day of PIFF events yesterday, taking in four movies and hitting some of the star-studded nightlife. In true tabloid style, I’ll start with the nightlife.

My friend and former professor is down from Seoul for the festival. He’s filming a documentary on Korean moviemakers. For this trip, he’s documenting a particular movie star. Around 10pm I called him and he told me to join him at the Grand Hotel. When I arrived, I met some of his friends — a director and a screenwriter. We exchanged cards, had some chit-chat, then went to a party near the Westin Chosun. It turned out to be an older crowd singing karaoke. We stayed long enough to say some hellos and drink a shot and then went back to the Grand Hotel for the “actor’s party.”

We got in the elevator and headed for the top floor. Along the way a beautiful woman got on and was surprised to see my friend. They chatted the rest of the way up. When we got to the top, there were a bunch of people processing wrist bands and screening people to go through. I guess I was okay, because I got my wrist band. I peeked in the entrance and saw about a dozen photographers in two rows waiting. We were about to go through when someone pulled us back. This beautiful woman I mentioned before was apparently famous. Some “handlers” fixed up her dress and then she went in and stood in front of a huge banner while the paparazzi lit up the room. Then it was our turn. We quickly went through. Needless to say, no one took our picture.

The room inside was huge, dark except for swirling colored lights, and full of beautiful people. Apparently, all the major Korean directors and movie stars were there. Imagine going to Sundance and getting invited to the exclusive party. This was Korea’s version. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was the only white person there. I met a young director who had previously worked under Lee Myun-se and was now working on his first major film. Through him I was introduced to an actress whose name unfortunately eludes me. Unfortunate because we really hit it off and wound up talking for 30 or 40 minutes. She had lived in the U.S. for two years and was really cool.

We hung around for a while and then their group had to leave. I stayed a little while longer. I was sort of waiting to see if Josh Hartnett or Bryan Singer would show up. As time went on I felt more and more like I was loitering, so I took off. Just as I got to the hotel entrance, a black car pulled up. Inside? Josh Hartnett. He got out of the car and was met with ear-piercing screams. I couldn’t exactly turn around and walk back into the party, so I left.

(Click ahead for some photos and brief reviews)
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